More Evidence that Including Company Stock in a Retirement Plan May Not Be Worth the Litigation Risk

A few months back, I discussed the broad conception of damages in stock drop type cases articulated in the case of Bendaoud, which essentially found that damages exist if the participant could have done better in an alternative investment option. This concept makes it fairly easy to construct a damages theory in 401(k) and ESOP cases that will survive the scrutiny of a motion to dismiss, and that can support a significant award of damages. A prerequisite to getting to the damages analysis, however, is a basis for attributing an actionable error in the plan to the fiduciaries; the fact that a participant could do better in a different investment is irrelevant if there was no mistake in offering the original investment option in the first place.

That, however, is not too hard to show either. The bar, for instance, is low when showing that offering company stock as an option is an actionable error. For instance, "a stock can be imprudently risky for an employee savings plan even in the absence of fraud or imminent collapse,” according to a federal judge sustaining an ERISA case against Ford alleging that the offering of company stock as an investment option was a breach of fiduciary duty, given the extensive problems in the industry at the time and the lack of broad disclosure of how those problems may affect the investment.

With numerous major industries heavily roiled, and a stock market that has tanked, I can’t say that it should really tax the imagination of any good lawyer to come up with both damages to participants and errors by plan fiduciaries in any case involving the inclusion of company stock in a retirement plan or ESOP.